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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 15:03 GMT 16:03 UK
Mobiles to beat nicotine craving
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff, in Salford

Smokers desperate to give up cigarettes could soon resort to a small program on their mobile phone or PDA.

Mobile phone, BBC
Feel the need? Reach for the mobile
It would throw up a series of flickering dots on the screen, which psychologists say seem to break some of the mental processes that drive the need for another nicotine fix.

The idea has been tested in the lab on a desktop computer in a controlled study on students.

But researcher Dr John May, from Sheffield University, UK, said it was something that could quite possibly find its way on to portable devices in the not too distant future.

Reduced reward

"They would need to have reasonable screen resolutions but you could imagine that instead of having a button to launch a Tetris or snake game, you could have a 'stop your craving' button," he told the British Association's science festival in Salford, Greater Manchester.

The dots create what is termed "visual noise" and interfere with the pleasurable images the mind associates with the object of desire.

"They don't stop the images but they do make them less vivid," he said.

"It seems to break the link between the imagery, the emotion and the reward that you feel."

Dr May and colleagues are investigating the thought processes that build up to that moment when an individual has the sudden urge to reach for a cigarette.

Their work suggests there are many unconscious cues that grow in intensity until the intrusive thought occurs.

Allied treatment

"This grabs your attention and you begin to elaborate by coming up with mental images of what it is you want, what it might look like and where you might find it.

"These are pleasurable thoughts, positive thoughts, rewarding thoughts - but if we can break that by blocking the mental images, then we demolish the reward and the motivation to keep thinking about it."

The dots hinder memory tasks the mind must perform to build the pleasurable images.

Dr May said it needed to be shown that the flickering dots display actually led to a reduction in smoking, not just to a reduction in craving.

If that could be established then a dots "game" could form the basis of therapy that would work alongside chemical intervention, including nicotine-replacement patches and future vaccines.


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